A friend forwarded me this blog post yesterday, an interesting commentary on the perspectives of poverty.  The author notes a false dichotomy that I see to be all too true in the images and feeling we export from Africa back to the West – the idea that poverty, or our conception of poverty, is mutually exclusive from joy, family, happiness, laughter and a whole life.

The truth is that these things exist side by side, every day and life continues to roll along.

I think this is a really interesting project and that the author is right on both counts – NGOs do need revenue to survive, so many of the these fundraising or marketing campaigns are geared to only tell one side of the story because there is a belief that donors are much more likely to give money to a project that is helping the despondent looking child they see in pictures as opposed to the smiling man holding a cell phone.  The logic is, images tug our hearts, which can tug open our wallets – and which image is more likely to tug yours?

There may be some merit to that.

But when we primarily export images of starving children, trash filled slums and dirty water, we let the rest of the world believe that is the whole of the African life is poverty and destitution and that your $25 a month is going to solve it all.  Oversimplification can create a terrible misunderstanding about the struggles and our role in helping to solve them.

This week I went to see a documentary called Good Fortune about the effect of development projects in both Kibera and a rural village in western Kenya.  The take away, for me, was that our best intentions are not always best for Africans – that sometimes aid can do more damage than good.  Not all aid is bad.  Not all aid is good.  And not that aid should cease.  There is just no perfect aid project.  Not do I think development will ever occur without creating some suffering along the way – it is always a painful process, something we often fail to internalize.

We should do, then, is realize that our concept of rich and poor is deeply Western and deeply biased.

After the film had ended, the producer told a story about one of the characters in the film, who wondered why everyone kept telling him he was poor.  He makes less that a dollar a day, so by our standards he fits the mark of povery.  But in his own words,

“I look out at my field every day and see 500 cows that I own.  I’m not poor, I’m rich!”

And it all starts with our view of the West in relation to our view of Africa – the tattered and torn Africa we usually see in photos.  These pictures tell us they must need whatever we feel like offering.

We justfy many things in the name of doing good, because they are good to the Western mind.  But we rarely stop to ask questions like, “how does our bias and culture affect the form and method of aid and development in Africa” or question “who it this really benefiting?” and “are we doing more damage that good in the process?”

It’s all about perspective.